The End of the Jeb Doctrine
Jeb Bush's foreign-policy views had no place in the carpet-bombing, torture-loving GOP of Trump and Cruz.
In Iowa this past summer, Jeb Bush prompted headlines by refusing to rule out the use of waterboarding in another Bush administration. “God knows what the next president is going to have to do,” he said.
In South Carolina last week, Donald Trump had no trouble fully embracing waterboarding — and promising to “bring back a hell of a lot worse,” as he put it after a Republican debate. To illustrate his position, at a Friday event in the Palmetto State the businessman told an unproven story about Gen. John Pershing capturing 50 terrorists, executing 49 of them with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood, and then letting the survivor go to tell other militants what had happened. Trump didn’t specifically say the militants were “Muslim,” but that was his clear implication. “So we better start getting tough,” he concluded, “or we’re not going to have a country, folks.”
The Republicans who went to the polls in South Carolina the following day said unequivocally that they preferred Trump’s tough talk to Bush’s relatively measured worldview, handing the businessman a sweeping win while dealing the former Florida governor so decisive a loss that he dropped out of the race while the final votes were still being counted.
Bush’s early exit is the clearest evidence to date that foreign policy positions that would once have been considered hawkish have no place in a party whose leading candidates embrace torture, carpet bombing the Islamic State, and keeping Muslims out of the United States.
As Bush’s campaign struggled to live up to the early hype it generated by sucking up massive donor dollars, he sought to make clear he was no moderate. He touted what he described as a deeply conservative record as governor of Florida and backed a Republican-led call for the United States to halt the resettlement of Muslim refugees from the war-torn Middle East. In one particularly awkward moment, Bush said the United States should prioritize Christian refugees, but struggled to explain how he’d know the religious affiliation of refugee applicants.
It wasn’t enough to win over GOP primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina, where he finished a disappointing fourth Saturday night with just 7.8 percent of the vote. Trump drew 32.5 percent.
It was a stunning fall for the former Florida governor, who’d based his candidacy in part on his belief that voters anxious in the aftermath of the Islamic State’s rise would want a candidate who was better versed in foreign policy and national security.
Before even officially declaring his candidacy in June 2015, Bush tried to show his toughness by using a trip to Europe to shake his fist at Russian President Vladimir Putin. He called the Russian strongman “a ruthless pragmatist who will push until someone pushes back” and for the United States and its NATO allies to consider permanently stationing troops in Poland and Eastern Europe. But he wouldn’t get more specific about the role of the U.S. military there, simply saying troop rotations and joint training exercises — what the Barack Obama administration was already doing — ”could be more robust.”
The South Carolina vote that ended Bush’s candidacy solidified Trump’s standing as his party’s presidential frontrunner. Across the country, Democratic voters in Nevada did the same for Hillary Clinton by handing her a convincing win over her rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The former secretary of state won the votes of 52.7 percent of Democratic caucus-goers, compared to 47.2 for Sanders.
Clinton is decidedly more hawkish than Sanders, and the two Democrats have clashed over her vote for the Iraq war and later support for the Obama administration’s Afghan troop surge and military intervention in Libya. Sanders, while conceding that she has more experience dealing with national security, has argued that those positions showed poor judgement. Sanders’s broadly anti-establishment message has resonated with many Democratic primary voters, particularly the younger ones who have disproportionately backed the 74-year-old lawmaker.
It flips on the Republican side, where primary voters frustrated with Washington insiders overwhelmingly have preferred the tough national security talk of Trump; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who finished second in South Carolina with 22.5 percent of the vote; and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who finished a narrow third with 22.3 percent.
Take the hot-button issue of the U.S. response to the millions displaced by the war in Syria. In New Hampshire in November, Bush said U.S. authorities should focus on resettling Christians — “they’re not Islamic terrorists” — and push “the pause button” on resettling other refugees from the war-torn Middle East. At the same time, he responded to a child who asked whether the United States would keep all “Islams” out of the United States by saying that “we need to be cautious as we go through this not to get to a point where our emotions overtake our brain.”
At the same time, Trump told voters that the government had “absolutely no choice” but to shutter mosques. Cruz, for his part, said “there is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.”
According to exit polls from South Carolina, some 75 percent of its GOP voters supported Trump’s call for the U.S. to bar Muslims.
When it came to the fight against the Islamic State, Bush called for more American boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria and accused President Obama of failing to listen to his generals or commit enough resources to the fight. In reality, though, the main elements of Bush’s plan for fighting the Islamic State — arming the Kurds, working with Iraq’s Sunni tribes, and embedding U.S. troops with Iraqi security forces — are much the same as Obama’s.
The biggest factor in Bush’s demise may not have been actual foreign-policy differences with his rivals, most of whom share his — and the president’s — reluctance to launch a new, large-scale, American-led ground war against the Islamic State. The primary distinction was instead the tone of the rhetoric used to deliver that familiar counter-Islamic State strategy, and Bush never managed to sound as tough as Cruz and Trump.
“We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion,” Cruz said in December. “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” Asked about tactics to minimize civilian casualties, Cruz said, “You can’t fight a politically correct war.”
In a telling moment for how acerbic the Republican race has become, even Trump drew boos Saturday night in his South Carolina victory speech when he congratulated Rubio and Cruz. “We go back to war tomorrow morning,” he assured his fans. “There’s nothing easy about running for president, I can tell you. It’s tough, it’s nasty, it’s mean, it’s vicious, it’s beautiful — when you win it’s beautiful and we’re going to start winning for our country.”
He segued into the central theme of his candidacy, using an acronym for the Islamic State: “Because our country doesn’t win anymore. Doesn’t win. We don’t win with the military, we can’t beat ISIS.”
Bush had spent months trying to position himself as a more sober, responsible, and electable commander in chief than Trump, who has praised Putin’s brutal treatment of journalists, said the United States should seize Iraqi oil and give the profits to American military veterans, and explained that he got his national security advice “from the shows.”
While Rubio is perhaps best positioned to inherit and build on Bush’s extensive campaign infrastructure, it carries with it the pressure from the party’s national power brokers to somehow sound as strong as Trump and Cruz on national security, without appearing too extreme, in order to appeal to general election voters.
Bush was Rubio’s one-time mentor, but the former governor had a unique burden in his connection to the unpopular wars of his brother, former President George W. Bush. He struggled to be his “own man,” but also surrounded himself with a number of his brother’s neoconservative national security advisors. He fumbled answering the predictable question of whether he too would’ve invaded Iraq, knowing now that pre-war intelligence about its purported weapons of mass destruction was wrong. “I would have [authorized the invasion], and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody,” he said, stumbling over the query several more times before ultimately reversing to say he wouldn’t have launched the war.
In the waning days of the South Carolina race, Jeb Bush even brought his brother out on the trail for the first time, wagering that the remaining popularity of a president who twice won the state could also inject his campaign with direly needed momentum.
He lost the bet. Even Trump’s suggestion that George W. Bush had been responsible for the 9/11 attacks, an incendiary allegation relegated to conspiracy theorists, and lied about the Iraq war, didn’t dampen his momentum in the state the former president had won. “They lied,” Trump said in the presidential debate before the primary. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none.”
One week later, Bush dropped out of his race.
Photo credit: Mark Makela